Tubeless, aero, go
Tested: Bontrager Aura 5 TLR
It’s often said that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Or, as the English proverb ran in the 16th century, “A man can not have his cake and eat his cake”, meaning that one cannot both possess cake and eat cake, simultaneously. The cake paradox may be a source of chagrin across the pond, but here in America we’re able purchase cake, eat cake, and have abundant leftovers to tuck away in the freezer and unpack for a marathon of The West Wing. This all becomes quite obvious with a ride on the Bontrager Aura 5 TLR ($1,200) wheelset.
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With the Aura 5 TLR (meaning “tubeless ready”), Bontrager took their entry-level aero wheel, an aluminum rim capped with a 50mm deep carbon cover, and made it adaptable for both traditional tubed tires and a tubeless system — all for $1,200, a significant investment, but much less than one can spend on aero wheels. What makes these new wheels doubly noteworthy is that one of the main complaints in the road tubeless market is a lack of options, and, specifically, a lack of aero options. The frosting on the cake.
Installing tubeless tires for the first time can be tricky: they’re designed to stay on tight, which has logical consequences for getting them on the wheel. Here’s how to do it:
1. Install the plastic rim strip on the inside of the wheel, lining up the hole for the valve first.
2. Get some soapy water and rub it on the tire and the rim. This doesn’t make things much easier, but you can’t say we didn’t offer a little tip.
3. Get one side of the tire onto the rim, such that it’s in the deepest part of the wheel (this gives you the most slack).
4. Slowly work the other bead onto the wheel. Try not to break your tire levers in the process. If you’re able to do it without levers, you’ve got our respect.
5. Put some air in the tire to move the beads into place. Then let the air out, remove the core of the valve, and add a few ounces of sealant. Inflate. Ride.
This brings us to a discussion of road tubeless tires. Most of us ride on clincher tires, or tires that attach to the rim with a bead and hold an inner tube inside. Tubeless tires are still clinchers, but the bead and the rim interact in such a way that they require no tube at all; instead, a squirt of sealant goes in through the valve to make the interface airtight. That sealant also automatically fixes punctures, allowing for a (theoretically) flat-proof riding experience. Of course, there are no guarantees, but anecdotally, the burly set of Bontrager R3 TLR tires ($180) can be worn to the bone before they flat.
Once we got the tires on the wheels (see: sidebar) riding was a blast, first on a commute in rush hour traffic from Manhattan to Brooklyn and then during laps around Prospect Park. The tires run fast and with exceptional traction, but their real gift is the idea that getting a flat is virtually impossible; even if flats are only an occasional nuisance, there’s a sense of relief knowing you can run the cobblestones in the Meatpacking District and rip through the debris-covered streets of Chinatown without thinking twice about what’s under the rubber. In our book, this benefit is incentive enough for a switch to tubeless.
Some people will throw up their hands and say, “Yes, but aero wheels? This is more cake than we bargained for!” It may be that a wind tunnel-proven wheel is overkill for the recreational set, but we’ve been around the park enough Saturday afternoons, and seen the T1 racks at enough triathlons, to know that plenty of weekend warriors and age-groupers are getting their fill of sweets. For us, we’ll enjoy the extra few seconds off the long-course, the kitten-like purr of the aero wheel, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing we can still have it all.